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Black History Month: 20 Black trailblazers in science and biotechnology that you need to know

Good Day BIO
February 26, 2021

Throughout Black History Month, Good Day BIO has been highlighting the accomplishments of Black trailblazers in science and biotechnology—here’s a list of 20 you should know.

1. Dr. Akinwumi Adesina

Nigerian agricultural economist Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, Ph.D., won the 2017 World Food Prize for leading major policy change that’s helped millions of African farmers and improved nutrition across the continent. Since 2015, Dr. Adesina has served as president of the African Development Bank, where he works to end malnutrition and stunting.

To learn more about Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, click here.

Akinwumi Adesina


2. Alice Ball

Young chemist Alice Ball achieved a number of firsts—including discovering the first treatment for leprosy. Ball was the first woman AND the first African American to earn a Master’s in chemistry from the College of Hawaii, in 1915. At 23 years old, she discovered how to safely inject chaulmoogra oil to use as a treatment for Hansen’s Disease (a.k.a. leprosy). Until the discovery of antibiotics, this was the only effective treatment for this stigmatized and lethal disease.

To learn more about Alice Ball, click here.

Alice Ball

3. Otis Boykin

Black inventor and electronics pioneer Otis Boykin invented the control unit for the pacemaker. Boykin graduated from Fisk University and began a job testing automatic aircraft controls. He was accepted to a graduate program at the Illinois Institute of Technology but could not complete his degree because he could not afford the tuition. Over the course of his career, Boykin earned more than 25 patents, including for the electrical resistor in the control unit of the pacemaker, which allowed it to precisely regulate a person’s heartbeat.

To learn more about Otis Boykin, click here.

Otis Boykin

4. George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor (and the namesake of the BIO IMPACT Award for Innovation in Industrial Biotechnology and Agriculture). He was the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree, which he put to use in developing food, medical, and industrial products made from peanuts—but he also pioneered new soil techniques like crop rotation and fertilization.

To learn more about George Washington Carver, click here.

George Washington Carver

5. Emmett Chappelle

Known as the “Father of Bioluminescence,” Emmett Chappelle made many important contributions to biology and biochemistry—and paved the way for last week’s historic Mars rover landing. Born in segregated Phoenix, Arizona, in 1925, Chappelle graduated at the top of his high school class and served in Italy with the U.S. Army’s 92nd Infantry during WWII. During the Space Race, Chappelle worked for NASA, where, among other accomplishments, he developed the ATP fluorescent assay, which could be used to detect microbial life in the soil on Mars. Chappelle went on to apply this technology to the agricultural and healthcare fields.

To learn more about Emmett Chappelle, click here.

Emmett Chapelle

6. Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett

The development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is in large part thanks to a Black woman named Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett. She is a 35-year-old immunologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where she co-led the team that worked with Moderna to develop the COVID-19 vaccine. Follow Dr. Corbett on Twitter @KizzyPhD.

To learn more about Dr. Kizzy Corbett, click here.

Kizzmekia Corbett

7. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first Black woman to earn an M.D. in the United States, as well as one of the first Black medical authors in the country. As a doctor, she was devoted to “caring for freed slaves who would otherwise have had no access to medical care,” according to NIH.

To learn more about Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, click here.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

8. Dr. Charles R. Drew

Washington, D.C. native and Howard University professor Dr. Charles R. Drew is known for his pioneering work to develop blood banks and fight racial discrimination in blood donation. He went on to become the first Black student to earn a Doctorate of Science in Surgery at Columbia University in New York and then led the first American Red Cross blood bank for the U.S. military—where he, as a Black man, was prohibited from donating.

To learn more about Dr. Charles Drew, click here.

Charles Drew

9. Lisa Jackson

As the first Black administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lisa Jackson put a focus on environmental justice and ensuring all communities can enjoy clean air, clean water, and job growth. She served as EPA administrator under President Obama, from 2009-2013.

To learn more about Lisa Jackson, click here.

Lisa Jackson

10. Dr. Mae Jemison

Dr. Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to travel into space in September 1992 as a part of the first group of astronauts to go to space after the Challenger exploded. She graduated high school at 16, and went on to attend Stanford University and Cornell Medical School, where she earned her Doctorate in 1981. She’s now heading a team researching interstellar travel.

To learn more about Dr. Mae Jemison, click here.

Mae Jemison

11. Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was a NASA mathematician calculated critical equations for the United States’ first human spaceflights. She graduated from West Virginia State College with honors in mathematics, and was then “handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools,” says NASA. She was brilliantly portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the Academy Award-nominated 2016 film, “Hidden Figures.” Johnson passed away in February 2020, at the age of 101.

To learn more about Katherine Johnson, click here.

Katherine Johnson

12. Dr. Percy Julian

Black chemist Dr. Percy Julian overcame racial discrimination to pioneer the synthesis of plant chemicals to make medicines—including the chemical synthesis and industrial-scale production of progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone, which led to medical breakthroughs like steroids and birth control pills. The first African American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Julian passed away in 1975.

To learn more about Dr. Percy Julian, click here.

Percy Julian

13. Dr. Ernest Everett Just

Dr. Ernest Everett Just was a gifted scientist who made groundbreaking discoveries about cells and fertilization—and escaped Nazi-occupied France. Born in 1883 in Charleston, SC, Dr. Just graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth with a degree in zoology and magna cum laude from the University of Chicago with a doctorate in experimental embryology. In 1940, Dr. Just was conducting research in France when the German Nazis invaded. He was imprisoned, but luckily set free within a few months.

To learn more about Dr. Ernest Everett Just, click here.

Ernest Everett Just

14. Patience Koku

Patience Koku is a Nigerian fashion-entrepreneur-turned farmer—and an advocate for ensuring smallholder farmers have access to new technologies and learning opportunities. Koku is CEO of Replenish Farms in Nigeria, which produces rice, soy, maize, vegetables, and an advocate for smallholder farmers. She has called for the use of biotechnology like genetically modified crops to help farmers resist pests while reducing pesticide use.

To learn more about Patience Koku, click here.

Patience Koku

15. Henrietta Lacks

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Tragically, she passed away on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31—but some of her cells lived on. Unbeknownst to her or her family, a sample of her cells had been sent to a nearby tissue lab, where instead of dying quickly, they “doubled every 20 to 24 hours” according to Johns Hopkins. Nicknamed “HeLa” cells, they’re still used to study cancer without experimenting on humans.

The hospital admits that they should have done more to inform Henrietta’s family about the use of her cells. They’ve since worked with them as well as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) “to help broker an agreement that requires scientists to receive permission to use Henrietta Lacks’ genetic blueprint, or to use HeLa cells in NIH funded research.”

To learn more about Henrietta Lacks, click here.

Henrietta Lacks

16. Dr. Ted Love

Dr. Ted Love is the President and CEO of Global Blood Therapeutics (GBT), which developed the first FDA-approved drug targeting the underlying cause of sickle cell disease rather than just its symptoms. He’s had a long career in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, at Onyx Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Nuvelo, Inc., Theravance, Inc., and Genentech. He holds a B.A. in molecular biology from Haverford College and an M.D. from Yale Medical School, and completed a residency in internal medicine and fellowship in cardiology at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

To learn more about Dr. Ted Love and his work at GBT, click here.

Ted Love

17. Dr. Adrienne McFadden

Dr. Adrienne McFadden is the Vice President of Medicaid Clinical and the Chief Population Health Officer for National Medicaid Programs at Humana. Previously, Dr. McFadden was Director of Health Equity at the Virginia Department of Health, where she advised the State Commissioner of Health on minority health, rural health, and primary care programs.

To learn more about Dr. Adrienne McFadden, click here.

Adreienne McFadden

18. Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath is the President and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), and the first Black woman to lead the organization. The common thread in McMurry-Heath’s work across academia, government, and industry has been her focus on broadening access to scientific progress so more patients from diverse backgrounds can benefit from cutting-edge innovation. Driven by her own past family experiences navigating clinical trials and funding uncertainties within the rare disease community, McMurry-Heath calls “the distribution of scientific progress the social justice issue of our age.”

The first African American to graduate with an M.D./Ph.D. from Duke’s Medical Scientist Training Program, Dr. McMurry-Heath has held leadership roles at Johnson and Johnson as well as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under President Barack Obama.

To learn more about Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, click here.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath

19. Dr. Ronald McNair

Ronald E. McNair was a Black NASA astronaut—the second to fly to space—who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 at age 35. Despite growing up in the difficult environment that was a racially segregated South Carolina—where as a child, he stood up for his rights in a racially segregated library—he went on to receive a Ph.D. with honors in physics from MIT.

To learn more about Dr. Ronald McNair, click here.

Ronald McNair

20. U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-GA-13)

U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-GA-13) is the current and first Black Chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee. Since 2002, he’s served as U.S. Congressman for Georgia’s 13th District, which covers six counties in Metro Atlanta. He’s long focused on equity and racial justice in agriculture, and BIO has worked with him on the development of clean energy programs.

To learn more about Rep. Scott, click here.

David Scott